Here's how I imagine Red Lights' elevator pitch: "It's The Prestige, but set in modern times, and instead of illusionists, it's a psychic versus a debunker."
Not a bad notion. But if director Rodrigio Cortes was able to see the future, he'd have added that the film would have a desultory script, overblown camera work, ridiculous chat show sequences, a Razzie-worthy performance from Robert De Niro and an ending eliciting chuckles, hisses and groans. Too bad, because there's a good movie somewhere out there on the other side trying to contact us.
We open with a pre-title sequence that works well as its own short film. Sigourney Weaver and Cillian Murphy are called by a frazzled owner of a haunted house. We're led to believe they are paranormal specialists, but after a spooky séance we discover that they are, in fact, science-driven skeptics. After a guest appearance from Occam and his razor, the two get to the root of the problem and drive off like reason-driven badasses.
The troubles with the film begin soon after the hokey, X-Files-ish credits. Weaver is a professor of, I dunno, anti-parapsychology or somethin' in a major university that also pumps heavy funding into paranormal research. (There may be a two-credit class where you just watch episodes of Fringe.)
This school is located in an unnamed city that also has an unending appetite for faith healers, magicians and psychics. It's always on the news, it's filling their concert halls. Indeed, there's a fun sequence where Weaver and Murphy (her assistant) and Elizabeth Olsen (a new student) are brought in by the cops to take a false mentalist down in a sting operation.
It's a good scene and marks a win in Reason's column, but where in the world is it illegal to put on a magic show? I saw The Amazing Kreskin at beautiful Mount Airy Lodge when I was a kid – could I have made a citizen's arrest because he wasn't really reading minds? (Though come to think of it, all these years later, I just don't know how he knew his paycheck was hidden in that woman's purse.)
Red Lights' overall problem is that it tries to exist in the real world. Had Cortes tried a more stylized approach, I'd be more forgiving, but the relentless use of TV as a forced exposition feeding tube (with Oprah and Chris Matthews surrogates) begs us to accept the setting as familiar. And even with the success of Criss Angel, there's no popular entertainment equivalent for the film's antagonist, Robert De Niro's Simon Silver.
Silver, a blind seer of the beyond, flies around in private jets even though he retired decades ago. He was the world's best stage psychic, whose shtick includes levitating, purple prose monologues and surgery. He left public life when his biggest critic died in the audience at one of his shows, but now he's back.
And when he comes back, he makes a big entrance: by exiting a private plane, standing atop the staircase, taking off his sunglasses to show his spooky, blank gray eyes in close-up, then putting them back on. The evil baby with the one eyebrow on The Simpsons is more subtle. But De Niro is just getting warmed up.
His risible stage harangues are the new nadir of this once commendable actor's career. Travis Bickle is now officially a joke. He may as well have been shouting, "Not the bees!" I simply can't wait for these clips to make their way to YouTube.
De Niro's Silver is the spoonbender di tutti spoonbender, and the only person who can inspire doubt in the tough-as-nails Weaver. She did battle with him in the past and now Murphy is here to pick up the mantle.
I'll give Weaver some credit, she handles her clunky dialogue with panache. It's a cool character. Scratch that – it's a cool idea for a character. What actually ended up in Red Lights is a walking position statement. Her classroom lectures are commendable defenses of logic and investigation, but they are also just silly, at one point citing Beethoven's deafness as a defense against believing in ghosts.
There are a few big showdown moments in Red Lights, each increasing in ridiculousness. Mostly because of the closeups of DeNiro in his idiotic glasses and booming preacherman voice. I certainly enjoyed these moments, but probably not the way the director intended. There's an allergy to any subtlety in Cortes' direction. This worked for him in his pretty good first film Buried, but Red Lights is relentless.
Red Lights also ends in a twist that is meant to inspire cries of "Oh, wow, now I that I know that I can't wait to watch the whole thing again!" In actuality it will inspire cries of either "That's dumb," "That kinda goes against everything the movie stands for." Or, "That still doesn't explain half of the still open questions in the film." Or, most probably, "Huh?"
It's unlikely Red Lights will ever get released in its current form. It is two hours long, so there's plenty of room to cut. (I'd suggest starting with the late-in-act-three arrival of Craig Roberts, slipping in and out of his Welsh accent, on the receiving end of a rapid fire attack of exposition, then tasked with saving the day.) Nevertheless, should you end up seeing the same version I did, my psychic abilities predict you won't have a very enjoyable time.